Conference Brings Global Leaders in Midwifery to Eugene

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On March 30th, women and men from across the globe gathered here in Eugene; birth professionals from diverse backgrounds assembled with some of the world’s foremost midwifery leaders to share with each other, inspire each other in the work that they do.  International attendance was especially high this year: several midwives came from Puerto Rico, four attended from Ghana, two hailed from Uganda, and two midwives ventured from Oman.  Five full days of presentations, skill workshops and roundtable discussions brought over 300 attendees to Eugene.

Photo By Patti Ramos

Midwifery Today was created in Eugene in 1986 to bring unity to the midwifery movement and to provide a “forum for supporting, encouraging and educating midwives and other birth practitioners.”  According to their website, “Midwifery Today, Inc. is committed to promoting safe, healthy and happy outcomes for mothers and babies, and believes that the midwifery model of non-interventive, preventive care should be the standard of care throughout the world.”  In addition to their quarterly print magazine and multiple annual conferences, they offer books through their own Motherbaby Press, forums for midwifery-related discussion, and products for beginning and practicing midwives, birth practitioners, and parents.  The first conference was held here in Eugene in 1992.  There have been around 55 conferences since then, hosted by 12 or 13 different countries, in locales as varied as China, Mexico, Germany, the Bahamas, Denmark, Norway, and Russia.  The conferences are geared towards midwives, but also offer an abundance of helpful information for doctors, nurses, childbirth educators, anthropologists, naturopaths, massage therapists, and mothers.

Speakers at this year’s Eugene conference included some of the most important voices in the birth professional world.  Ina May Gaskin is a name many people might recognize.  A leader in the nation’s “midwifery revolution”, Ina May is the founder and director of The Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee, as well as author of the popular Spiritual Midwifery (1975) and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth (2003).  Other speakers included Robbie Davis-Floyd, PhD, a medical anthropologist who studies the anthropology of reproduction and author of Birth as an American Rite of Passage.  Michel Odent, MD, the French obstetrician who is known for introducing birthing pools and home-like birthing rooms to medical settings, has been a long-time contributor to Midwifery Today conferences and a leader in childbirth and health research for decades.  Eugene’s Marion Toepke McLean also spoke at the event.  McLean practiced as a Certified Nurse-Midwife from 1976 through 2001, and has contributed to Midwifery Today magazine in every issue since it’s inception.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Gentle Birth is a Human Rights Issue,” was echoed throughout various presentations that promoted care of the whole woman throughout pregnancy and birth with the goal of minimal medical interventions. The clinical sessions are often the most highly attended classes at Midwifery Today conferences, with topics covering birthing complications such as shoulder dystocia, fetal malpresentations, postpartum hemorrhage and prolonged labor.  These classes give midwives the opportunity to learn more techniques and maneuvers for addressing and dealing with these complications.  Maryl Smith, a homebirth midwife who has practiced in 18 nations hosted a session titled, “Supporting Trauma and Abuse Survivors through Pregnancy and Postpartum.” Herbalist Shonda Parker presented on herbal medicines for the childbearing years, and Portland’s Carol Gray taught craniosacral therapy for mamas and babies.  Other presentations covered common issues in maternity care such as pre-eclampsia and hypertension, VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean), and the delivery of twins and breeches. All classes aim to equip midwives and other birth practitioners with the knowledge and skills to address complications, as well as provide the wisdom and experience to approach birth with confidence and care.

Eugene’s Jan Tritten, founder and editor-in-chief of Midwifery Today magazine, felt that this year’s conference was filled with an especially good spirit.  Attendees came to learn new skills and left feeling buoyed by the incredible support and “unity of spirit in the work we’re doing.” The work of midwives and other birth professionals can be exhausting at times, and Tritten believes that the conference gave midwives an opportunity to “refuel their midwifery heart so they can continue to do their work joyfully.” Within the community however, it feels as if Midwifery Today’s important and highly attended conference stays mostly under the radar of Eugene residents.

Eugene midwife Amanda Moore attended Angelina Martinez Miranda’s all-day presentation on “Mexican Traditions and Techniques”.  Angelina, a 4th generation traditional Mexican midwife, included traditional techniques such as the rebozo, a Mexican scarf or shawl that is used during labor to assist the mother in different birthing positions, as well as during pregnancy and postpartum to alleviate various sources of discomfort.  Moore enjoys learning skills from traditional midwives such as Angelina, who, she writes, “practice without fear of prosecution and serve their communities at a large capacity.” The conference allowed CPM’s such as Moore to “delve deeper into questions or discuss with other midwives techniques or suggestions for certain birth experiences.” Attendance also grants CEU’s (continuing education units) for keeping CPM (Certified Professional Midwife) certifications up to date.  Moore added that, “the number of midwives and students that come together is amazing.” The large attendance brings revenue to Eugene as well.  Having Stephen and Ina May Gaskin walking hand-in-hand through Eugene on a warm spring evening, she writes, in some ways embodies the essence of Eugene.  “Our community supports, recognizes, and honors these incredible elders of the counterculture.”

Anita Rojas, midwife and founder of Eugene’s Sacred Waters Community Birthing Center, was also in attendance.   She was inspired by Angelina’s presentation, whose loving, hands-on midwifery “brought back to heart her great-grandmother’s old ways in the mountains of Mexico.”  She was also touched by the presence of speakers Sister Morningstar (longtime midwife and birth activist,) and Mary Cooper (midwife for over 20 years who attended over 2,000 births.)  Rojas felt this year’s conference was “intensely and profoundly powerful”.

An important aspect of the Midwifery Today conference involves reaching out to aspiring and student midwives.  Eugene resident Katie Safley completed a doula training course with Birthingway College in Portland and has been wanting to work in midwifery since 2007.  After finishing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, Katie completed  the Heart and Hands Midwifery Intensive in California with Elizabeth Davis (another outstanding speaker at the conference).  She also attended Angelina’s presentations on Mexican techniques and traditions, and enjoyed the diversity of speakers and perspectives.   Katie believes that the conference “helps to normalize midwifery within the larger context of our community” as people begin to realize that birthing outside of the hospital “can be a wonderful option for families of any social , political or religious ideology.”

As midwife-attended births continue to have positive, safe, even life-changing outcomes, overall attitudes toward birth might begin to slowly change.  Robbie Davis-Floyd envisions a “critical mass”: when 15% of the population recognizes the importance of gentle birth, it will be enough to cause a shift in perspective.  Eugene, with its own leaders and the ability to bring leaders together, might find itself at the forefront of that shift.

Photos by Patti Ramos